One review of my novel Three Little Lies likened the family at the heart of the story to “like something out of a V.C. Andrews drama.” I’m pretty sure the reviewer didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I’m taking it as a massive one. Flowers in the Attic by Andrews was passed feverishly between me and my friends as young teenagers. It was not only the forbidden, erotic dimension of the story that enthralled us, but the magnificent dysfunction of the filthy rich, twisted Foxworth-Dollanganger family, who were hiding a hotbed of deliciously dark secrets under those eaves.
Ever since those heady days in the 1980s I’ve been drawn to stories about these kinds of families, in particular when a protagonist who considers themselves ordinary, boring even, is drawn into their orbit, with predictably dark consequences. Here are a few of my favorites.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
OK, I know it’s not a crime novel but I couldn’t not include the daddy of the genre, a classic tale of the middle-class Charles Ryder who has never known family life, falling in love with the aristocratic Flytes. Sebastian says to Charles: “I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.” Of course, Sebastian doesn’t get his way, and ends up the main casualty of Charles’s obsession with the Flytes, although frankly it doesn’t end well for anyone (spoiler: these stories never do).
The Memory Game by Nicci French
This book was the single biggest influence on me as a writer. It was the first book that I’d describe as a psychological thriller that I ever read, and I fell in love. It would take me twenty years, but I knew this was the kind of book I wanted to write. Jane Martello is in her forties, and although divorced from her husband Claud, is still heavily involved in his family—a family whose spell she fell under as a teenager when she was best friends with Claud’s younger sister, Natalie. Natalie disappeared twenty-five years ago, but when her bones are discovered in the garden of the Martello’s family home, old secrets are thrust into the light, and the golden family that Jane is still in thrall to, begins to lose its luster.
Take Me In by Sabine Durrant
Most of these “glamorous family with a dark heart” stories are told from the perspective of the outsider, the everyday Joe or Joanna who gazes upon the family with rose-tinted glasses. Take Me In approaches the subject from the other side. It tells the story of Tess and Marcus—middle-class, metropolitan elite types—whose son is saved from drowning by Dave Jepsom, a tattooed and rather mysterious figure. When they return to London, Dave is everywhere they go, having seemingly formed an obsession with them that frightens both Tess and Marcus, who are each protecting secrets of their own.
The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings
Sixteen year-old Tamsyn lies on the cliff in Cornwall, her binoculars trained on The Cliff House and its inhabitants, the glamorous Davenport family. I love the detail in Tamsyn’s musings on the differences between her own family in their small, dark cottage and the Davenports. Rich families, she thinks, always have dry, clean towels, whereas in her house, the damp never allows anything to dry properly. It’s not long before Tamsyn has befriended the Davenport’s daughter Evie, and by the end of the summer (don’t these things always happen in summer?) events will have taken a dramatic turn that even Tamsyn couldn’t have imagined.
The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
When straight-laced, straight A student Karen meets beautiful, bohemian wannabe actress Biba, she is swept into the hedonistic world inhabited by her and her brother, Rex. As in many of these stories (think of Brideshead, Foxworth Hall, The Cliff House) the adored family’s home is a prominent character in the book, in this case a ramshackle property in North London that is home to Biba and Rex. Over the course of one heady, unforgettable summer (see, I told you), the house hosts wild parties and intimate moments, culminating in a tragic, shocking event that will change Karen’s life forever.
The Swimming Pool by Louise Candlish
Like Take Me In, The Swimming Pool is brilliant on the social mores of a particular type of London elite. Natalie, a teacher living with her family in a housing association flat, is flattered when glamorous Lara Channing takes her under her wing. Over the course of (you guessed it) one long, hot summer, Natalie is pulled further and further into Lara’s seemingly carefree, lavish lifestyle. But, as ever, not everything is as it seems. Natalie’s dark memories of a childhood summer are never far from the surface, and as events gallop towards their chilling conclusion, we know that things will never be the same again for any of the major players.